United States District Court, W.D. Arkansas, Fort Smith Division
CANDACE L. LANE, Plaintiff,
CAROLYN W. COLVIN, Acting Commissioner, Social Security Administration, Defendant.
MARK E. FORD, Magistrate Judge.
Plaintiff, Candace L. Lane, brings this action under 42 U.S.C. §405(g), seeking judicial review of a decision of the Commissioner of Social Security Administration (Commissioner) denying her claim for disability insurance benefits ("DIB") under Title II of the Social Security Act (hereinafter "the Act"), 42 U.S.C. §§ 423(d)(1)(A). In this judicial review, the court must determine whether there is substantial evidence in the administrative record to support the Commissioner's decision. See 42 U.S.C. § 405(g).
I. Procedural Background
Plaintiff protectively filed her application for DIB on October 26, 2011, alleging an onset date of March 1, 2004, due to back and neck pain, anxiety, depression, blindness and bipolar disorder. (T. 164) Her application was denied initially on February 16, 2012, and upon reconsideration on May 21, 2012. (T. 76-78, 80-81) Plaintiff requested an administrative hearing (T. 89-90), and the hearing was held on November 19, 2012, before the Hon. Glenn A. Neel, Administrative Law Judge ("ALJ"). (T. 29-71) Plaintiff was present and represented by her attorney, Fred L. Caddell. Also present at the hearing was Floyd J. Massey, Vocational Expert ("VE"). (T. 29, 31)
Plaintiff was 42 years old at the time of the hearing. (T. 34-35) Although a Disability Report reflected an 11th grade education, Plaintiff testified that she graduated from high school. (T. 35, 165) She had past relevant work ("PRW") experience as a data entry clerk for Loislaw from 2001 to 2004, as an office clerk for an RV dealership from 1995 to 1999, as a retail clerk at Dillards in 2000 to 2001, and as a quality control technician for ConAgra in 1994. (T. 36-37, 39-42, 64-67, 165) Plaintiff last worked on March 1, 2004. Her Disability Report stated that she stopped working because of her condition, but Plaintiff testified that she stopped working because she was laid off when Loislaw outsourced the work to India. (T. 42, 164) She did not return to work because her husband wanted her to stay home. (T. 43)
In a Decision issued on March 8, 2013, the ALJ found: (1) that Plaintiff last met the insured status requirements of the Act on March 31, 2009; (2) that Plaintiff did not engage in substantial gainful activity during the period from her alleged onset date of March 1, 2004 through her date last insured on March 31, 2009; (3) that through the date last insured, the Plaintiff had medically determinable impairments of scoliosis, disorder of the lumbar spine, disorder of the cervical spine, and anxiety; (4) that through the date last insured, Plaintiff did not have an impairment or combination of impairments that significantly limited her ability to perform basic work-related activities for 12 consecutive months, and therefore, Plaintiff did not have a severe impairment or combination of impairments; and, (5) that Plaintiff was not under a disability, as defined by the Act, at any time from the alleged onset date of March 1, 2004 through the date last insured on March 31, 2009. (T. 16-23)
Plaintiff appealed this decision to the Appeals Council (T. 8-10), but said request for review was denied on February 3, 2014. (T. 1-7) Plaintiff then filed this action on April 7, 2014. (Doc. 1) This case is before the undersigned pursuant to the consent of the parties. (Doc. 5) Both parties have filed appeal briefs (Docs. 8 and 9), and the case is ready for decision.
II. Applicable Law
This court's role is to determine whether the Commissioner's findings are supported by substantial evidence on the record as a whole. Ramirez v. Barnhart, 292 F.3d 576, 583 (8th Cir. 2002). Substantial evidence is less than a preponderance but it is enough that a reasonable mind would find it adequate to support the Commissioner's decision. "Our review extends beyond examining the record to find substantial evidence in support of the ALJ's decision; we also consider evidence in the record that fairly detracts from that decision." Cox v. Astrue, 495 F.3d 614, 617 (8th Cir. 2007). The ALJ's decision must be affirmed if the record contains substantial evidence to support it. Edwards v. Barnhart, 314 F.3d 964, 966 (8th Cir. 2003). As long as there is substantial evidence in the record that supports the Commissioner's decision, the court may not reverse it simply because substantial evidence exists in the record that would have supported a contrary outcome, or because the court would have decided the case differently. Haley v. Massanari, 258 F.3d 742, 747 (8th Cir. 2001). In other words, if after reviewing the record it is possible to draw two inconsistent positions from the evidence and one of those positions represents the findings of the ALJ, the decision of the ALJ must be affirmed. Young v. Apfel, 221 F.3d 1065, 1068 (8th Cir. 2000).
A claimant for Social Security disability benefits has the burden of proving her disability by establishing a medically determinable physical or mental impairment that has lasted at least one year and that prevents her from engaging in substantial gainful activity. Pearsall v. Massanari, 274 F.3d 1211, 1217 (8th Cir. 2001); 42 U.S.C. §§ 423(d)(1)(A) and 1382c(a)(3)(A). The Act defines "physical or mental impairment" as "an impairment that results from anatomical, physiological, or psychological abnormalities which are demonstrable by medically acceptable clinical and laboratory diagnostic techniques." 42 U.S.C. §§ 423(d)(3) and 1382(3)(c). A claimant must show that her disability, not simply her impairment, has lasted for at least twelve consecutive months. Titus v. Sullivan, 4 F.3d 590, 594 (8th Cir. 1993).
The Commissioner's regulations require application of a five-step sequential evaluation process to each claim for disability benefits: (1) whether the claimant has engaged in substantial gainful activity since filing his or her claim; (2) whether the claimant has a severe physical and/or mental impairment or combination of impairments; (3) whether the impairment(s) meet or equal an impairment in the listings; (4) whether the impairment(s) prevent the claimant from doing past relevant work; and, (5) whether the claimant is able to perform other work in the national economy given his or her age, education, and experience. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(a)-(f). Only if the final stage is reached does the fact finder consider the claimant's age, education, and work experience in light of his or her residual functional capacity. McCoy v. Schweiker, 683 F.2d 1138, 1141-42 (8th Cir. 1982); 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520 and 416.920.
The Court must determine whether substantial evidence, taking the record as a whole, supports the Commissioner's decision that Plaintiff was not disabled from the alleged date of onset on March 1, 2004 through the date last insured ("DLI") on March 31, 2009. Plaintiff raises three issues on appeal: (A) that the ALJ failed to fully develop the record; (B) that the ALJ erred as to credibility; and, (C) that the ALJ erred as to his Step Two analysis. (Doc. 8, pp. 10-17) Each issue is addressed in turn.
A. No Failure to Fully Develop the Record
Plaintiff argues that if the ALJ thought the Plaintiff's true work related restrictions were not evident from the record, she believes the ALJ should have sought further clarification regarding her impairments from her treating physicians, Dr. Sutterfield and Dr. Hays. She suggests that the ALJ should have re-contacted the treating physicians to inquire as to the severity of the Plaintiff's impairments at the time of the date last insured. (Doc. 8, p. 10)
The ALJ has a duty to fully and fairly develop the record. Frankl v. Shalala, 47 F.3d 935, 938 (8th Cir. 1995) (ALJ must fully and fairly develop the record so that a just determination of disability may be made). This duty exists "even if... the claimant is represented by counsel." Boyd v. Sullivan, 960 F.2d 733, 736 (8th Cir. 1992), quoting Warner v. Heckler, 722 F.2d 428, 431 (8th Cir. 1983). The ALJ, however, is not required to act as Plaintiff's counsel. Clark v. Shalala, 28 F.3d 828, 830 (8th Cir. 1994) (ALJ not required to function as claimant's substitute counsel, but only to develop a "reasonably complete" record); Shannon v. Chater, 54 F.3d 484, 488 (8th Cir. 1995) (reversal due to failure to develop the record is only warranted where such failure is unfair or prejudicial). There is no bright line rule indicating when the Commissioner has or has not adequately developed the record; rather, such an assessment is made on a case-by-case basis. Battles v. Shalala, 36 F.3d 43, 45 ...